Fantasy Basketball: 5 Stars to Avoid Entering the 2021-22 Season
Season-long fantasy basketball is unique. In modern days, the season-long format is less popular than the daily format. With production less variable than other sports, the key to success in fantasy basketball in any format is getting the right stars on your roster and continuously surrounding them with the players seeing minutes, usage, and opportunity.
The problem is that the top level of the NBA has never been deeper, but it has also never been less reliable. In the 2020-21 season, 17 players averaged at least 45 fantasy points per game, but only 9 of them played at least 60 games. That type of shifting movement makes it crucial to balance the per-night scoring element with participating in enough games for it to matter. Motivation is different for many players, and the offseason movement has created a few "superteams" that could not care less about this year's regular season.
For that reason, drafting the right players at the top is difficult entering this campaign. That is unlike fantasy football, where a drafter can very easily accumulate two or three stars with minimal research. There are landmines all across the early rounds of season-long basketball drafts this year.
With that in mind, let's identify five stars with a concerning fantasy situation that is worth avoiding at their draft position.
Note: Per-game averages are using FanDuel standard scoring.
LeBron James, Lakers
Saying bad things about LeBron James on the Internet can be dangerous, but here goes nothing.
In reality, I don't think even LeBron James superfans (myself amongst them) would argue that, from a fantasy perspective, this could be James' worst season yet. They may even hope it is.
James has added Russell Westbrook to Anthony Davis on a Lakers squad that made up for what it lacks from Brooklyn's top-shelf talent with absurd depth. James could miss the entire regular season and Los Angeles would still be in playoff contention. That type of supporting cast -- arguably the first of his career -- should reduce his role on the season and inside of individual games.
Westbrook had a 30.1% usage rate in Washington last season, and therefore, he's not going to just slot into Dennis Schroder's vacated 23.1% usage. Westbrook will command the ball more, and at this stage, he should. Anthony Davis also posted a 29.2% usage rate -- his highest in Los Angeles -- a season ago.
All three of these members have significant injury histories, as well, and they also all averaged over 1.30 FanDuel points per minute last year. Even on the hyper-efficient Warriors teams in 2018 and 2019, that was not possible to maintain. Draymond Green stepped back from his elite 1.21 FanDuel points per minute mark in 2015-16 to just a 1.11 and 1.00 mark in the next two seasons as Kevin Durant was fully integrated. There are only so many points and only so many cooks that can be in the kitchen.
The downside of having a Kendrick Nunn waiting to play is that, on more nights, LeBron simply won't. His 45 games played last year -- albeit with an injury -- was his lowest career total yet. At 36 years old, he still entered the playoffs fatigued despite the short workload.
LeBron will be available for the Lakers when it matters, but that period of time will not coincide with when he is in your season-long fantasy lineup.
Kyrie Irving, Nets
There will be first-round picks with constant, 70-game-or-more production. Brooklyn just likely will not have that because they do not need all three members of their star trio to beat other NBA teams on most nights.
There is an argument for James Harden, who played 68 games for Houston before a bizarre season last year that included a holdout and a trade. That being said, his personal motivation to be healthy for the postseason after failing to contribute to Brooklyn's 2021 run should be very real. Durant and Irving simply just can't stay healthy.
Durant not only had Achilles surgery recently, but a hamstring injury cost him 53 of the final 67 games last season.
Irving has now missed 62 of the last 136 games Brooklyn has played. Kyrie also just decided to stop showing up to work last season, and "World B. Flat" also currently stands unable to practice or play home games due to his vaccination status.
This all matters. Add in that Irving got a significant usage squeeze (23.5%) when the three played together in 2020-21, and it feels like a situation worth avoiding entirely despite the obvious talent.
Jimmy Butler, Heat
I am a Miami Heat fan, so this comes with true objectivity on one of my favorites to wear the black and red jersey.
Butler will not be leaned on as heavily as the 2021-22 Miami Heat captain. The team added Kyle Lowry from Toronto this offseason, and although his playing status is up in the air, Victor Oladipo remains on the roster, as well, after last season's move at the trade deadline. Those two alone will provide backcourt relief to help Butler, but it does dip his fantasy stock.
Butler's mini-breakout in 2021 was due to his usage and increased role as a facilitator. His 26.6% usage rate was his highest in Miami, and his 7.41 assists per 36 minutes were the highest mark of his entire career. Butler handled point guard duties in spurts when Miami was getting nothing from Kendrick Nunn, but with Lowry in the fold, that just will not happen. He likely dips back closer to his 24.6% usage in the wing role from two seasons ago with Miami.
Without the ball-handling duties, Butler will have to be much more efficient from three to score well for his ADP of 21.0. A 24.6% usage rate in an offense without three-point production at least slots him behind Khris Middleton and Devin Booker, and both of those two guards have ADPs lower than 30.0. Considering Butler's 24.5% three-point percentage was down from even his 2019-20 mark, and his 2.0 three-point attempts per game were the lowest since 2013 for him, a return to form with his shot does not appear to be in the fold.
The elephant in the room is also what Tyler Herro may return as in 2020-21 after a disastrous sophomore campaign.
Butler is a wing currently going in a sea of centers and power forwards, and his production appears to be much tougher to come by than many of his ADP neighbors.
Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Andre Drummond was an elite fantasy asset, and then, overnight, teams learned how to take him off the floor.
There is at least a nonzero chance this happens to Rudy Gobert this season. The Jazz center actually took a step back in his per-game scoring in 2020-21, dropping to just 14.3 points per game from 15.1 per game the season prior. That was somewhat to be expected adding Mike Conley to an offense that was already loaded with shooters, but Gobert's next step in fantasy ascension is his offensive output.
He still salvaged a good fantasy year because he's on the court so much (30.8 minutes per game) and set a career-high in blocks per game (2.7). If either of those things changes, Gobert's per-game floor could fall to the point where it no longer outweighs his limited ceiling.
The largest issue is the new concern for him -- his defensive prowess. Gobert has played in virtually every situation as a perceived defensive strength, but Ty Lue and the Clippers found immense success with small ball penetration in the playoffs. Gobert allowed 15 of 19 baskets to go in as the primary defender when the top-seed Jazz were eliminated in Game 6.
In must-win regular-season situations, do teams turn to a small ball lineup with a similar game plan to attack Gobert to where Utah has to take him off the floor? It might seem crazy, but so is Drummond being out of a starting role after his insane 2018-19 season for the Pistons. Once a player becomes a known defensive liability, their role in the NBA diminishes quickly.
It's not a certainty or even a likelihood, but it is enough of a concern to fade Gobert's already limited ceiling at a 26.0 ADP.
Michael Porter Jr, Nuggets
Of any ADP inside the top-50 spots, Michael Porter Jr. has the most egregious one.
Porter Jr. is going above Christian Wood, De'Aaron Fox, and Ja Morant -- all of whom have a clear and obvious path to lead their team in usage and fantasy points per minute. Not only is Porter Jr. firmly locked in behind Nikola Jokic, but Will Barton and Aaron Gordon are equal threats to the remaining usage.
Barton missed the final 13 games of last regular season, and Porter Jr. did explode for four 30-point games in that stretch. That period of time is likely what has his ADP in the range it is. However, Porter Jr. just exceeded 20 points -- not 30 -- twice in nine playoff games with Will Barton playing last season. Barton had a 22.1% usage without the injured Jamal Murray on the floor last season, and Porter Jr.'s was just 21.9% in that same floor condition.
Murray may also be back into his secondary role behind Jokic this season at some point. He already has returned to very limited practice sessions. Asking Porter to pay off an identical ADP (31.6) to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with at least a 10.0% disparity in usage as a third option would be a tall task.
There is also the added risk that Michael Malone clearly still does not love Porter's ability on the defensive end. He has benched Porter Jr. late in games for this in prior seasons, but now a maximum salary player, that period is likely over. Still, that type of limitation can still mean losing individual possessions late in games.
Perhaps MPJ does average 22.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game like he did in the final thirteen without Barton. However, that positive outcome assumption still just returns equal value to his ADP. There are plenty of paths to failure beyond it that make it seem far easier to turn to a more proven role.